Film reviews round-up: My Life as a Courgette, After the Storm, The Hippopotamus, Dough

The Oscar-nominated animation that is blowing audiences away, a Japanese familial melodrama, a Stephen Fry adaptation, and a drug-infused Brit comedy

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My Life As A Courgette (PG)

★★★★★

Dir. Claude Barras, 66 mins, starring: Gaspard Schlatter (voice), Sixtine Murat (voice), Paulin Jaccoud (voice), Michel Vuillermoz (voice), Raul Ribera (voice)

Claude Barras’ Oscar-nominated stop-motion animated feature is as poignant and as well observed a film about the darker side of childhood as you could ever hope to see. It touches on bereavement, bullying and the desperate plight of young orphans but does so in a way that is humorous and ultimately redemptive.

The film’s main character is a 10-year-old kid, Icare, nicknamed “Courgette” by his mother. Her’s a neglected child who uses the mother’s empty beer cans as toys. When she dies, he ends up at an orphanage where, at first, he is tormented by the other kids.

He is also guilt-ridden that he may have caused his mother’s death. “I think I killed my mum but I didn’t mean to…” he says plaintively. She may not always have been kind to him but he pines for her presence – and for the mashed potato she used to cook him. With his blue plasticine hair and tomato-coloured ears, Courgette looks as if he has escaped from some gothic Tim Burton fantasy.

He has very big and marvellously expressive eyes. Barras’ style is on the spartan side. There are never more than a handful of characters in any given scene and nothing like the level of detail found in big CG animated films from Hollywood.

The film benefits, though, from an insightful, beautifully written screenplay from Céline Sciamma (the writer-director of live action dramas, Tomboy and Girlhood). We very quickly forget that we are watching puppets.

There is plenty of whimsical comedy (for example, in the way the children in the orphanage interpret the sex lives of the adults). There is also considerable pathos in the film’s portrayal of kids whose parents are in prison or dead or who have abandoned them.

The nastiest boy is the red-haired Simon but the film gradually reveals the reasons for his behaviour. Like all the other children in the orphanage, he is deeply traumatised. The defiance and abrasiveness are simply his way of coping.

Barras deals in touching fashion with the immediate friendship that springs up between Courgette and the elfin-like Camille, a new girl at the orphanage whose mother was murdered by her father in a crime passionnel. The adults behave in very different ways.

Some are wantonly cruel to the kids. Others are selfless in the extreme. The most sympathetic is the very melancholy police officer who takes charge of Corugette’s case after his mother’s death – and then keeps on coming to visit him.

This is a film that should appeal both to adults and to older children. (Younger ones will surely find some of its themes upsetting.) Barras and his collaborators manage to tell Courgette’s story without over-egging the sentimentality or portraying him and the other orphans as victims. At the same time, this is a sensitive and very nuanced account of the kids’ plight.

As they try to make sense of often appalling events in their lives, they’re all very resilient. If they can’t trust the adults, they turn to each other – and they always find a way to survive.

After the Storm (PG)

★★★☆☆

Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda, 117 mins, starring: Hiroshi Abe, Yôko Maki, Satomi Kobayashi, Lily Frankie, Sôsuke Ikematsu, Yuri Nakamura

No one makes family melodramas quite like Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda. His style is deceptively low key and matter of fact even as he deals with seismic moments in the lives of his protagonists. In After the Storm, the main character is novelist Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a man in early middle age.

Ryota won an award with a book 15 years before but his literary career has ebbed away. Koreeda depicts him in deliberately ambiguous and double-edged fashion. On the one hand, we feel sympathy for him. He’s a doting father, separated from his wife and who can barely afford to pay child support.

“Why did my life turn out like this?” he asks himself again and again, as if bad luck has stopped him from ever becoming either the writer or the family man he wanted and deserved to be. Ryota, though, is also a delinquent: a ne’er-do-well who doesn’t think twice about trying to steal from his elderly mother or about blackmailing and double-crossing clients at the detective agency where he works.

Whenever he has money, he tends to gamble it away. He despised his late father, who pawned off many of the family’s possessions, and yet he shares many of the father’s worst traits. He’s impulsive. He doesn’t like to plan or work – and he sees life as a lottery.

When a publisher offers him a large amount of money to write a Manga comic, he decides it is beneath him in spite of his desperate need for cash. Actor Hiroshi Abe is a likeable and charismatic screen presence.

That, one guesses, is precisely why Koreeda chose him for the role. Audiences never quite lose their sympathy for him, even as he continually lets down those closest to him. He seems to know his own shortcomings. His mother Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki) can see right through him but still indulges him.

The film leaves it open-ended as to whether he really is a talented novelist or not. Much of the film deals with seemingly banal moments in the characters’ lives: the mother hoovering up the glass from the window Ryota has broken, his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) asking him again and again for the child support he keeps on promising but failing to pay, his visits to the pawnbroker or scenes of him trying to eat food that hasn’t defrosted properly.

All the throwaway details are very revealing about his character. He’s seemingly devoted to his son and enormously resentful that Kyoko has a new boyfriend who spends more time with the boy than he does.

As the intimate family drama plays out, typhoons are hitting the city (hence the title After the Storm.) There are no obvious tempests in the lives of the characters here. Even so, Koreeda is dealing with crucial parts of their lives.

The Beethoven-loving elderly mother is becoming more and more isolated. “New friends at my age only mean more funerals,” is her justification for not socialising more. The young boy, too, is hiding in his shell.

He doesn’t even have the confidence to swing the bat in baseball games. Koreeda deals with their problems in his usual probing and insightful fashion but spends most of the film focusing on the likeable but hapless Ryota.

The storylines in his films often resemble those of soap operas but his work is extraordinarily subtle and well crafted. He proves again and again that you don’t need shock tactics or final reel revelations to make an impact. Quiet observation does the job just as well.

The Hippopotamus (15)

★★☆☆☆

Dir. John Jencks, 89 mins, starring: Roger Allam, Russell Tovey, Matthew Modine, Tim McInnerny, Fiona Shaw, Emily Berrington, Geraldine Somerville, Sebastian Croft

This patchy but lively adaptation of Stephen Fry’s novel is notable for the wonderfully sardonic and world-weary performance from Roger Allam as the film’s anti-hero, Ted Wallace. Wallace is a once-promising poet who, in late middle age, has become a bad tempered near alcoholic, eking out an existence as a theatre critic, and spending his spare time drinking whisky and consuming pornography.

Allam’s delivery of his lines rekindles memories of Dennis Price in Kind Hearts and Coronets, the Ealing classic to which The Hippopotamus, in its better moments, bears at least a passing resemblance.

Not long after he is fired from his job as theatre critic, Wallace is hired by his terminally ill goddaughter Jane Swann (Emily Berrington) to investigate strange goings-on at country house Swofford Hall, owned by his estranged friend Lord Logan (US actor Matthew Modine, incongruously draped in tweed).

There appears to be a miracle worker at loose – and Ted’s job is to work out what exactly is happening. The “healer” seems to be his adolescent, sex-obsessed godson David Logan (Tommy Knight). As played by Allam, Ted is a consummate cynic, always ready to mock and skewer the pretensions of others.

He hasn’t written a poem since 1987. For all his curmudgeonliness, we guess right at the outset that he’s far more kind-hearted than he is letting on. The writing here is sometimes arch and laboured but Allam puts across even the most stilted lines with enormous brio.

There’s a tremendous scene early on in which he interrupts a Shakespearian production because he is so appalled by it. “Loose-stooled effluent” is what he calls it, to the face of the lead actor. The scenes at Swofford Hall accentuate the eccentricities of the upper-class British types. Some of the humour is surprisingly base. (There are references to Equus-like bestiality and a few too many smutty jokes about masturbation.)

Nonetheless, Allam carries the film. As he investigates goings-on at the country house, he seems like a slightly more sozzled version of one of Raymond Chandler’s private eyes. He is very perceptive, though, and always as brutal about himself as about anyone else.

Dough (15)

★★☆☆☆

Dir. John Goldschmidt, 94 mins, starring: Jonathan Pryce, Jerome Holder, Phil Davis, Ian Hart, Pauline Collins, Andrew Ellis

This isn’t the first time that the healing powers of marijuana have been celebrated in a British comedy. Dough does for baking what Nigel Cole’s Saving Grace (2000) did for gardening.

In both movies, respectable middle-class characters are able to save their livelihoods through drugs. The main character here is elderly Jewish baker Nat Dayan (Jonathan Pryce.) His customers are dying off.

His son doesn’t want to work in the business and there’s a ruthless supermarket tycoon/property developer (a scowling Phil Davis) next door who has a nefarious plan to build a giant multi-storey car park on the street.

Nat’s unlikely ally is Ayyash (Jerome Holder), a Muslim refugee from the Sudan who is a good lad at heart but has been working for local drug pusher Victor (Ian Hart). Ayyash needs a respectable job as cover. His mum already works as Nat’s cleaner and he takes a job as the baker’s assistant.

When cannabis finds its way into the dough, sales shoot up. This is amiable but very starchy fare with a screenplay that seems at best half-baked. The film never really manages to mix together successfully the hardboiled elements with the whimsical comedy.

Pryce enjoys himself as the Topol-like master baker who spends his every spare moment watching Singin’ in the Rain. There’s an excruciating romantic sub-plot involving Nat and a wealthy widow (Pauline Collins). He wants her investment while she wants his love.

We have the inevitable scenes of respectable customers getting high on the cannabis-laced brownies and muffins. Much of the rest of the humour comes from the attrition between the elderly Jew and the young Muslim.

They’re poles apart in religion, age and temperament but eventually, and very predictably, knead together an affectionate and supportive relationship. They even pose as cleaners and commit a daring burglary, as if they’re north London’s answer to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

In their rush to provide a happy ending, the filmmakers lose sight of many of their own supporting characters and fill the plot with far too many artificial sweeteners.

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